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A remark 61 years ago from a future president sparked the development of a national week-long education program called Youth Tour that continues to motivate students to pursue their passions for public service and politics.

Sen. Lyndon Baines Johnson is credited with inspiring the Youth Tour when he addressed the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association Annual Meeting in Chicago in 1957. The senator declared, “If one thing comes out of this meeting, it will be sending youngsters to the national capital where they can actually see what the flag stands for and represents.”

Consequently, some Texas electric cooperatives sent groups of young people to Washington to work during the summer in Sen. Johnson’s office. In 1958, rural electric cooperatives in Iowa sponsored the first group of 34 young people on a week-long study tour of our nation’s capital.

From that original group of Iowa students, eight reached out and shared their memories with us. For two students, the trip uncovered something in common between a geek and a jock, which eventually led to marriage. Another student credits that 1958 trip with giving her a direction for a lifelong career path. Sixty years later, these original Youth Tour students still vividly recall the sites of the Washington, D.C. trip, which for many of them was their first and only time in the nation’s capital.

This is true for Doris (Fredrickson) Werning, who distinctly remembers her only trip to Washington, D.C. She submitted a winning essay and was chosen to participate by Monona County REC in Onawa, now part of Western Iowa Power Cooperative. Before her Youth Tour trip in 1958, she’d left Iowa’s boundaries just once – to visit the Black Hills of South Dakota.

Her fondest memories of Youth Tour were visiting the Jefferson Memorial, the Lincoln Monument and the Washington Monument. In fact, she walked to the top of the Washington Monument, and the view from that vantage point is a fond memory she’ll always treasure. After all these years, Doris still has the color film slides given to her by the co-op after the trip for her to use at community presentations. She describes the trip as “truly one of the most wonderful experiences of my life.”

Doris connected us with two more students from the 1958 trip – Larry Rettig and Wilma (Shoup) Rettig, who were both sponsored by Amana Society Service Co. Larry and Wilma knew of each other, but didn’t seem to have much in common. Wilma says, “If you had told us we would someday marry each other, we would have both said no way! Larry was the geek and I was the jock.”

Each submitted an essay to their co-op about what rural electrification meant to them and their communities, and they were both selected as winners. Larry and Wilma had something in common after all, and the seeds of a longstanding marriage were planted on that trip to Washington, D.C., 60 years ago. After talking with us about her memories of the trip, Wilma went up to their attic and found a scrapbook she made after returning home, and it brought back a flood of memories for the couple.

For another student from southwest Iowa, the Youth Tour would prove to have a major impact on her career path. Mary Ella Holt Yearns, sponsored byRideta Electric, Inc., in Mt. Ayr (now Southwest Iowa REC), says a visit to the USDA Research Center sparked her future career as an extension housing specialist at Iowa State University. The predecessor to this magazine, Iowa REC News, ran a cover story almost 20 years ago on the important work she was doing in the field of universal home design. You’ll learn more about Mary and her career in an upcoming issue.

Other Youth Tour students remarked that the trip gave them a deeper appreciation for government. Wendell Debner, sponsored by Butler County REC, recalled, “at the formative age of 17, I learned a great deal about who occupied the positions of political power and how government worked. I remember meeting our senators, Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn, and visiting the White House and Capitol, along with many historic sites and monuments. This experience provided an early stimulus for my active citizenship over the years. I have valued the contribution that cooperative organizations make to the economy of our nation.”

For Janice (Hale) Larsen, seeing the historic sites in person made them very real and increased her interest in happenings at home and abroad. Sponsored by Winnebago REC in north-central Iowa (now Heartland Power Cooperative), she shares that “most importantly, I was left with the conviction that being a citizen mattered and that by voting I had an important voice in our government.”

Susan Hoskinson, sponsored by Adams County Cooperative Electric (now Southwest Iowa REC), shared similar sentiments. “Aside from the tour’s impact on my own personal life, the Iowa Youth Tour gave me a lifelong appreciation for the leadership provided by people such as my dad, who served Adams County’s rural electrification efforts as treasurer and board member from the time of my earliest memories … members of our group gained a better understanding of the impact upon our own lives that resulted from one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, the R.E.A. Our meetings with various top public and private program administrators helped explain the concept of low-interest loans that were offered to cooperatives through the USDA’s Rural Electrification Administration, beginning in the mid-1930s … the Iowa Youth Tour gave me an introduction to the study of history and politics that I continue to pursue.”

Myron Pringle, who still farms with his youngest son near Cherokee, recalled many wonderful memories of his 1958 trip. He fondly remembers Gettysburg, Ford’s Theatre, Mt. Vernon, the Lincoln Memorial and seeing the Bell X-1 aircraft at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. Myron was particularly awed by the Iwo Jima Memorial, which had been dedicated just a few years earlier in 1954.

During the past 60 years, more than 50,000 students from rural communities across the nation have participated in the annual electric cooperative Youth Tour to Washington, D.C. Iowa’s electric cooperatives continue to invest in the next generation of cooperative membership, and they’re sending 37 students on the Youth Tour this month. You can read about their experiences in next month’s issue. 

Erin Campbell is the Director of Communications for the Iowa Association of Electric Cooperatives.

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